19 June, 2015

Looking Back

My time here in Brazil has been many things: enriching and frustrating, inspiring and maddening. While there are things I will find in the future to look back fondly on, when my plane leaves the tarmac I will, in general, have little love lost.  That being said, as I reflect on the last three years of life and travel, I will focus on the positive experiences that may seduce travelers to choose Brazil as a place worthy of visiting.
1. Colonial Towns - Brazil has a fascinating history of European settlers from a variety of nations attempting to lay claim to a part of the new world. Thanks mostly to the Dutch and Portuguese, there are a number of colonial towns still in a good condition along Brazil's coastlines as well as inland due to early mining and agriculture. I've had the pleasure of visiting Paraty in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Olinda in the state of Pernambuco, and Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais. Each takes you back in time as you navigate hazardous cobble-stoned streets and slow down to wonder what is was like as one of the first inhabitants of this continent.

The picturesque town of Paraty.
While neighboring Olinda gets a lot more tourists, the old town of Recife,
which dates to the same time period, is worth a visit as well.

2. Rio - This city was easily one of my favorites in all of Brazil. I can't explain it other that to say I love the carioca spirit!  If I had lived closer I would have been camped out at Posto 9 on Ipanema ever chance I got. Nevertheless, I did manage to visit four times in three years, a couple of those for a week!  My advice for travelers: come once to do the touristy stuff - Pão de Açúcar, Christ the Redeemer (or skip this...ugh!), the Centro/Lapa district and Selaron Steps, and the Botanical Gardens - then come back again and beach until you can no longer beach.

Rio at Carnaval is just as spectacular as you would hope.
The energy of dancing until sunrise in the Sambadrome is contagious!

One of my favorite places in Rio, other than the beaches,
and a must-see for any tourist - the Botanical Gardens.
Ipanema beach at sunset...sigh

Paçoquita is a popular brand of paçoca.
(Photo source)
3. Paçoca - You know the inside of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?  It's that but without the chocolate and more peanutty-tasting. The bakery near my apartment, Riviera, sells homemade versions which are delicious and not as sweet.
I love these plain or as a topping on açai. Speaking of...

4. Açaí - This "super food" is pretty pricey outside of Brazil, but in the country it is easy to find and worth the cost. Made from a berry, and served frozen with guaraná mixed in, it is delicious on the beach with bananas, granola, and paçoca...or basically whatever you want: strawberries, condensed milk, chocolate syrup, honey, etc. They may eat it at health-food shops in L.A., but it Brazil it is treated like ice cream. I have no problem with that.

This delicious monstrosity from a trip to Guarujá is topped
with papaya, granola, condensed milk, and banana.

5. Inhotim - This massive outdoor sculpture garden slash installation museum located in the middle of nowhere in Minas Gerais about an hour from Belo Horizante is a must see. If you "don't get" contemporary or modern art, Inhotim just might change your mind, but be prepared for sore feet and a sensory overload by the end of the day because you are part of the art here. Not to mention all of this takes place in what amounts to a gorgeous botanical garden.  I don't know why this place isn't a bigger deal!

"Invenção da cor"
by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.
"Narcissus Garden"
by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

6. Oscar Niemeyer - The architect of the UN Building in New York, Niemeyer's designs are all over Brazil, especially dominating Brasília, which he helped plan from the ground up. A proud communist who did not believe in private ownership of the earth, one common thread of his work is that all ground floors are open to the public, many literally so. Niemeyer also does things with concrete that seem to defy gravity.

Brasilia's Museu Nacional H. Guimarães with the National Cathedral
in the background, all designed by Niemeyer.
Niemeyer has several works in São Paulo's Memorial da América Latina,
including the Salão de Atos building.

7. A praia - Brazil knows how to do beaches. Whether in Rio, Recife, Ubatuba, or Guarujá, you find a spot, rent a few chairs, an umbrella, spread out your canga, and wait for the cerveja and açai vendors to stroll by. It's that simple. Don't forget your sunga!

Praia Trindade between Ubatuba and Paraty.

In preparing for my next adventure in Malaysia I received a preemptive email from the shipping company several months ago cautioning about the complications Brazilian customs often inflict. To quote: "As you are aware, Brazil is a very different and peculiar country when it comes to customs and other related formalities."

"Different and peculiar."

I think I'll just let this blog end with that...

15 June, 2015

Tchau for Now

June is a time of endings. For teachers it is a notch in the belt for another year of a challenging career come to a close. It is a time to say goodbye to current students and farewell to graduating seniors.  As this my last year in Brazil I am saying bittersweet goodbyes to everyone. As excited I am for what the future in Asia holds, the students here have been the best part of my job and I will do my best to hold on to those memories whenever I look back.

First up in the goodbyes was Senior Graduation:

I love graduations for the traditions that are unique to each school.
Here students are escorted to the stage during the processional by a parent.

I never taught any of the students in this class, however, I did serve as their CAS
Coordinator the last two years. I had the opportunity to get to know a few students
through other school events, such as last year's trip to Europe, including these two:
my fellow ginger and my favorite Salvadoran, both of whom share the latest
in reggaeton hits with me, as well as being intelligent and talented students.

Next up, 8th grade Promotion. I began my time here with these monsters as crazy little sixth graders fresh out of elementary school. I'm still amazed we both made it out of that year alive!  I had the pleasure - and it was! - to have half of them again this year as I was asked to step in to take over an 8th grade Physical Science course at semester.

The Colombian contingent of the class. Viva la tierra querida!
This Fernanda.
She's a bit teary here, but she's been in my class twice now and served as my
office/locker neighbor all year, never missing a day saying, "Good Morning, Stetty!"
The day after 8th grade Graduation I received the above email from John
and made an appearance on his Instagram.

Final farewells. I've known my current ninth graders for three years now. I met them as 7th graders, had daily contact with them outside my CAS Office door where their lockers were located throughout their 8th grade year, and again for Biology as Freshmen.  These are some of the nicest and easiest kids I have ever taught...and I had them twice!

My 9th graders gifted me with a framed group photo from our class trip.
While not always easy, my first cohort of IB Biology students grew on me.  It took us awhile to figure each other out and get into a good rhythm, but I am happy with our progress and how much they have grown over the year.  I am confident they will continue to be great and I look forward to hearing about how they do on their exams a year from now!

Facebook posting from one of my IB Bio students of a photo from the last day
of IB activities with all the departing IB teachers and a couple other students.

One of the great things about International Schools is that the students often spread to the far corners of the Earth. I have run in to former students and colleagues in airports, met for lunch in New York City or Miami or Rio, and shared successes and odd remembrances over Facebook.  For many of these faces it isn't goodbye so much as a tchau...for now.

Wonderful farewell speech given by one of the 8th grade students who I taught
this last semester and as a 6th grader my first year here.
Moments like this remind me that, despite frustrations with work,
I am a teacher because of the kids, above all else.

18 May, 2015

Down on the Farm

As part of an interdisciplinary field trip, the 9th grade class took a day trip to a historic coffee plantation about an hour from Campinas, known as Fazenda Ibicaba. Built in 1817 and run by a Senator by the name of Nicolau Vergueiro, the plantation has been preserved as an example of this era of coffee agriculture as well as to tell the story of the slaves and immigrant workers who went on to make up a large part of the Brazilian demographic.

The great thing about the tour was that the students were divided into small teams, each with a map and a different sequence of locations to visit around the massive area of land. At each location was a placard with information to read and gather. Several locations even had actors in period costumes who would appear from behind corners or closed doors to ask what we were doing there and then proceed to tell us their stories.

My group began with the plantation house, meeting Senator Vergueiro himself, who invited us to sit at his massive dining room table in the great room of the mansion where Queen Isabel and Dom Pedro had once dined. We all agreed we were the most impacted by the slave we encountered beneath the barn where the coffee beans were stored who showed us the dirt floor where he slept while shuffling around barefoot and shackled.

A view of the plaza-like area where the coffee beans were spread out to dry in
the hot Brazilian sun before being stored in the large storage barns to the right.
My awesome little group for the day.
The actor playing the watch-tower guard whose job it was to keep an eye on
slaves and migrant workers in case there was trouble or an escape attempt.
Eventually the immigrant workers from places such as Italy and Germany got
wise to workers' rights and demanded better working conditions than the African
slaves and were granted these modest houses in a far corner of the plantation.
Class of 2018 in front of the plantation's mansion.
This group, from places as diverse as Brazil, Korea, Canada, India, Japan,
Mexico and the US really come together for whatever adventure.

21 April, 2015

Back in Time...Again

The last time I visited the historic town of Ouro Preto I was alone and at the mercy of bus transportation. This time I came with friends and a rental car, both of which made getting lost in the small but winding town and to nearby locales a lot easier and much more fun. Visiting over a Sunday this time was also opportunistic in that many of the churches were open and we were able to see the insides in addition to the impressive masonry outside.

This visit was timed well in that the upcoming federal holiday is in honor of Tiradentes ("cheer-ah-den-sheez"), a martyred revolutionary against the Portuguese who was captured, hanged, and had the symbolic displeasure of his remains being scattered along the highway between Rio de Janeiro and Ouro Preto, with the final destination having his head displayed on a stake in the central plaza.

Ouro Preto: a veritable "Where's Waldo" of 18th Century churches.

Located south of the state capital of Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto and the surrounding towns such as Mariana and Congonhas, among others, date back to the beginning of 1700's, many sharing founding stories with colonists finding mining opportunities. My previous trip was too rainy to visit any mines. This time, however, I was able to enter an old gold mine situated between Ouro Preto and Mariana, in addition to the small mine in town owned by Chico Rei, a slave and former African tribal king, as well as Brazil's first abolitionist.

In the Minas de Passagem, a former gold mine.
It's hard to tell but this track is inclining at about a
45-50 degree angle!

Part of the 2kms of a subterranean lake in the Minas de Passagem.

In addition to Chico Rei and Tiradentes, Aleijadinho ("ah-lay-jah-jeen-yo") is another famous Brazilian from this era with connections to the town and history. The son of an architect, he learned to carve intricate and beautiful façades and statues, despite not being able to walk and having to strap his tools to his limbs after loosing use of his appendages, possibly due to leprosy.

Aleijandinho's intricate façade on the stunning
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis.

Close-up of one of Aleijandinho's soapstone angels,
characterized by large, open eyes and long flowing hair.

Set apart on the Alto da Cruz is the "slave church"
Igreja de Santa Efigênia do Pretos.

Built by Aleijandinho's father, the Igreja Matriz
Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Antônio Dias features
a unique cross atop a sideways moon, signifying
the domination of the Moors by the Christians.

While Ouro Preto has, arguably, the highest density of 18th Century churches of this era with Aleijandinho and his contemporaries' work, nearby Mariana and Congonhas also have a few notable structures as well and were well-worth the visit.

Two churches border the Praça Minas Gerais in Mariana.

Congonhas boasts the unique Basílica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, famous for
Aleijandinho's last work (built between 1800-1805), The Prophets, which consists
of twelve soapstone statues lining the entrance to the church.

A Walk in the Park

A short drive south of Belo Horizonte, outside of the tiny, unimpressive town of Brumadinho, lies a sprawling garden of art known as Inhotim ("een-yo-cheem"). Within this expanse of botanical beauty and contemporary art one can easily pass several days exploring the 3000 acres set aside by mining magnate, Bernardo Paz, to both protect the area around his farmhouse and collect larger-than-life modern art pieces.

This bronze work, without title, is by Brazilian artist Edgard de Souza.

The area contains works by artists both Brazilian and international, some out of doors along various trails, others housed in galleries that rise out of the ground's forest like hidden bunkers.  In my humble opinion, this is one of Brazil's best tourist draws and should be a much more promoted destination; many Brazilians are even unfamiliar with its existence.

"Invenção da cor" by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.

What sets Inhotim apart from other contemporary art spaces, apart from its massive size, is that every work demands interaction of some kind with the viewer. Whether is simply walking in a around a particular installation such as "Narcissus Garden" a rooftop pond with large reflective orbs floating freely en mass amongst reeds and lily pads, begging visitors to see themselves an infinite number times, or "Viewing Machine," which looks like a giant telescope atop a hill but is more akin to a kaleidoscope for the lush mountain backdrop or whomever looks through the other end.

Leaning in to the spirit of "Narcissus Garden" by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Experiencing Danish artist Olafur Eliasson's "Viewing Machine".

Even the gallery buildings themselves are often full sensory experiences, unworthy of photographs. The Galeria Cosmococa, housed in an ominous-looking grey brick fortress asks visitors to remove their shoes at the door, and invites them in to several different "cinema" rooms; one containing a swimming pool for floating and viewing (complete with changing room!), one with hammocks criss-crossing the cube-shaped space, and another filled with brightly colored balloons and a slippery, uneven floor - all with films being projected on the walls.

My favorite experience was a piece by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, titled "The Murder of Crows."  Housed in a long warehouse-like building, hidden along a narrow dirt path in the woods, you enter from one end and begin moving cautiously toward the center where, as your eyes adjust to the low light, you see a loose cluster of folding chairs set in a vaguely circular arrangement. Speakers populate the expansive space, some hanging, others on the ground, all growing thicker as you reach the center of the building. All the while a strange symphony is playing, growing more and more full as you arrive at the center. You find an empty seat to find a bizarre story written on a placard, describing a story like a dream-scape, pulling from elements surrounding you. As you read you marvel at how the music seems to fit which ever part of the text you are at. And then you leave slowly, in awe at the experience and a little creeped out at the same time.

A field filled with clay letters are part of Brazilian Marilá Dardot's installation.

I have been wanting to visit Inhotim for some time and am grateful to have had the opportunity to get here, as it does require at least a couple days of travel to not feel rushed. I will recommend this unique place to anyone visiting Brazil. It is well-worth the effort to get here, and lovers of art and/or the outdoors will be satisfied by the experience.

25 January, 2015


It may appear that I've abandoned this blog.  Or Brazil. Or travel in general.

And I have, sort of. In a way, Brazil and my desire to explore it, has lost a bit of its allure. It's no one's fault, really; it just is what it is.

A beach weekend in Guarujá
I haven't been sitting on my caboose since September - my last bloggable, noteworthy travel adventure. I've weekended on a nice beach in Guarujá, on the São Paulo coast. I've spent a lovely four days in Rio, experiencing it without the New Years, Carnaval, and World Cup crowds; though I didn't do anything I hadn't done before and that was perfectly fine!

The fact is, Brazil is expensive: sometimes unnecessarily, unjustifiably, obscenely so. And unlike many other Latin American countries where one can show up at a bus terminal, look at a schedule, and go, Brazil's buses are often booked and the route options limited.  People who can afford to fly, tend to fly, and those who can't, plan ahead and bus it.  Or they don't go anyplace at all.  Because Brazil is huge.  Sometimes busing is foolish to begin with just because of the sheer size of the country.

Açai on Ipanema Beach in Rio
And then there are the holidays.  Brazil has a decent amount of holidays and when those holidays hit, it seems everyone who can, travels. Most of them to the beach, which makes the roads to said beaches and the airports veritable mosh-pits of vacationers. And then we come full-circle to the hotel/hostel/pousada operators jacking up their rates.

All that being said, I think I have essentially breathed a deep, concessionary sigh and allowed myself to forget about where I live and just trudge forward until June when I leave this country for good. Three-day holiday weekends are just too short to fork over enough reais to pay a month's rent in the US, to fly someone interesting and different, stay in lodging with "high-season" rates, only to turn around after just catching your breath.

Nothing better than days with no schedule, friends, beach cerjevas and Rio

There may be a post here or there about explorations in São Paulo down the highway, for a city of 22 million does, by default, offer many interesting things to do and see. But I have no major travel plans for the next five months already mapped out.

Not everyone who has lived and/or traveled in Brazil will agree with me on any or all of the above, however, I can confidently say that I have lost my vontage for travel in Brazil.  And that is that!

Last two photos courtesy of Lisa Jensen-Hengstler.

24 January, 2015

This Little Piggy

An attempted excursion into São Paulo to visit a touring art exhibition ended up being a bust - three to four hour line?  Não obrigado.  However, we did use one failure as an excuse to visit the city's famed Mercado Municipal, or "mercadão" referencing its large size.  Built in the 1930's this is mainstay for residents of the metropolis and tourists alike.

Thanks for Anthony Bourdain, these meat sandwiches are a major draw for
the entire market and the area around the stall is usually standing-room only.

The mangosteens in the middle smell like sweaty gym socks. Be advised.

Ever wonder where cashews come from?  Why the caju fruit, of course!